Actress Lara Hayhurst travels to Oz and back as CLO’S COVID Compliance Officer

By Sharon Eberson

I was going to ask Laura Hayhurst just five questions about being a COVID compliance officer for Pittsburgh CLO’s summer season, but one question inevitably led to another, and another, and another …

Let’s call it a Q&A. Or a chat. But five barely covers all of the hats Lara Hayhurst wears onstage and behind the scenes.

The actress, intimacy coordinator, and assistant stage manager (Broadway’s “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” starring Audra McDonald) last year added COVID compliance officer to her many titles. She may not be where Pittsburgh audiences are used to seeing her in the spotlight, but know that the musicals at Heinz Field this month could not go on without her.

Lara Hayhurst – the headshot

Besides ensuring that CLO’s team follows strict union, CDC, and state guidelines, she also was the dog handler. Another of her titles — for one of the stars of CLO”s THE WIZARD OF OZ: Nessa, the cairn terrier who landed her cues as Dorothy’s beloved companion, Toto.

Of all Hayhurst’s tasks on that production, Nessa’s care was among her biggest challenges — having nothing to do with Nessa herself, who is the consummate professional.

Heinz Field’s rules dictated that no one, not even the dog, is allowed on the Steelers’ natural grass.

Nessa has been on a national tour of OZ and tons of stages, “But imagine you’re a dog, and you see 100 yards of beautifully mown grass,” Hayhurst said. “All she wanted to do was pee on the 50-yard line.”

Not only did Nessa stay on script and off the grass, but Hayhurst reports that all safety precautions went according to plan.

Hayhurst as Maria in PMT’s “The Sound of Music”

It probably helps that Hayhurst seems to be as sunny and upbeat as the characters she often plays, including Margot and understudying the lead in several regional theatre productions of LEGALLY BLONDE, including Pittsburgh CLO’s 2014 production. Among her theatrical homes away from home is Pittsburgh Musical Theater. There she played Elle in LEGALLY BLONDE and was starring as Maria in THE SOUND OF MUSIC when the theatres were shut down by the pandemic.

Hayhurst and her husband, actor-director-choreographer Trey Compton, live full-time in New York now, but they met as youngsters at Act One Theater School in Glenshaw. They have been together ever since, including at North Allegheny High School and Pace (N.Y.) University. After CLO’s summer season, they will go home — in-person auditions are gearing up in New York City — then return to Pittsburgh for an Oct. 2 concert in PMT’s Artist Spotlight Series.

The woman of many titles also has been cast in a joint City Theatre/CLO production of the new musical AN UNTITLED NEW PLAY BY JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE, which opens at City on Nov. 27. Her not-yet-announced role this time around may surprise a few fans.

For July of 2021, her time is devoted to Pittsburgh CLO’s safety, just as the COVID-10 Delta variant is gaining steam in the United States.

Hayhurst, near but not on the grass, at Heinz Field

THE WIZARD OF OZ has come and gone with no positive COVID tests. Upcoming this week, she has a few stars to look out for, as CLO presents a BROADWAY MUSICAL CELEBRATION with Clay Aiken, Norm Lewis, Robert Fairchild, Jackie Burns, Joe Serafini, and more.

They will be taking compliance orders from Hayhurst, who was certified by Health Education Services, which she calls “the gold standard” of efficient training. She worked in her new role for small film projects and music videos before Mark Fleischer, executive producer of Pittsburgh CLO, called in March of this year to tell her about “this amazing brainchild of an idea he had”: to return CLO to its outdoor roots, in a stadium. She knew it would be “a huge undertaking, but I said yes, and here we are.”

One of the first things Hayhurst tells people as they begin this new adventure in pandemic theatre-making is, “We are building the airplane as we go along. Some days it’s an F-16, and some days it’s a 747. I never know what plane I’m going to board as I start each new day. So I always thank people for their grace and flexibility.”

You wear so many hats already. What made you want to become a COVID compliance officer?

New York was scary. My husband and I were there almost the whole time. Everyone in New York took the rules very seriously because we saw the nearly apocalyptic way the city was affected. So we were just hanging in New York and doing our best to stay healthy and keep everyone around us healthy. And I was obviously mourning the loss of our industry everywhere. In 48 hours, my husband and I cumulatively lost seven jobs when everything shut down. We were sad and despondent, and after the original threat had passed and things were starting to get a little bit better, I found myself cranky and sitting on the couch, moaning about all my jobs being gone.

And I finally said, ‘You know what? I can do something about this.” I had heard about COVID compliance, but it was mostly for film and TV. That was the first wave. I thought, as with most of my side hustles, like animal handler or intimacy coordinator, I would so much rather be in the world of theatre and stay entrenched in this community that I love than go bar-tend or whatever. I decided I would rather be part of a show that went down in flames trying to come back, in the most compliant way possible, than sitting on my couch and moaning about it.

What are some of the things you have to do, and what are some of the challenges you faced?

Our biggest challenge was getting approvals from all of our unions. The most stringent, of course, being Actors Equity. They have released three sets of guidelines since the pandemic. The first ones were almost impossible to meet unless you were in an amphitheater outdoors and had unlimited resources. Those were the guidelines we started with. Once vaccines became more prevalent, Equity did a revision with vaccinated company guidelines, which are much easier to work with. And that is what we are working with right now.

So besides providing PPE and those sorts of things, everyone except the performers is masked, then we do a pre-work test, then we do weekly testing. Also, because we have youth members, they remain masked the whole time except when they are performing because some of them are too young to be vaccinated. We negotiated specifically with Actors Equity. They were gracious and allowed us to test the kiddos every other day and not weekly just so we could maintain their negative test status.

Getting the union approvals was really difficult. It took until a week before rehearsals started to finally get their blessing.

But in the meantime, we chugged along as if it was going to be OK. I arranged for our testing provider, and we are also using really cool tracing technology with Price, Waterhouse, Cooper. There are fobs we all wear in the stadium — they look like car starters. They are not tracking us … but they know proximity to other folks wearing fobs. I have assigned them by department, so you’re either assigned to crew, cast, or CLO admin … so if God forbid we had a positive result, I could zoom in and see which specific teams were affected and quarantine those teams only.

Q: You mentioned that some of the Pittsburgh folks seemed almost surprised about how strict the regulations are.

HAYHURST: I think it’s because they were not in New York. Once you’ve seen one body lifted into a refrigerator truck, you’re like, ‘OK. Whatever I have to do.’ I empathize with the fact that it was not as severe everywhere., especially now, when we step outside the stadium, and there really are no rules anymore.

It’s a tough change. Even I am not masking outdoors mostly, and then when I get back in the stadium, I put my mask on and wash my hands all the time and wear the contact tracer. Also, these runs are so short. If one person goes down, we don’t have the time to quarantine. It served us in the long run that everyone was so gracious in following the rules because we are all so excited to get back to work.

Q: What tests did you have to administer?

HAYHURST: We have been operating with two types of tests. They are both self-administered, but I observe. We do a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test for our pre-work and weekly testing, and those are the really, really sensitive tests that get shipped out, and we get those results in 24 hours. Those are nasal swabs — not the brain scan. It’s not aggressive.

We also have a rapid antigen test. In my opinion, antigen is the better way to go, especially in vaccinated individuals. It’s immediate and can be more accurate because the PCR tests will occasionally trigger false positives because of how sensitive they are. The antigen tests run in 15 minutes, and we get the results right then and there. They also are FDA approved for ages 2 and up, whereas the PCR is for 18 and up.

For the youth members, we clear everything with their parents. We want to make sure everyone’s comfortable. I tell folks, even though we get tested once a week, it’s an open door. Do you want to take a test because you woke up with a sniffle? Come on in. We’ll do it and give you that peace of mind.

Q: So now you have all of these “Broadway Musical Celebration” people coming in …

HAYHURST: Yes! Our [rehearsal space] is alive with the most beautiful warmups now!

Q: I imagine performers like Norm Lewis and Robert Fairchild are used to the strict guidelines?

HAYHURST: Yes. I think because most of them are New Yorkers. We have seen the darkest of the dark. And this isn’t quite as aggressive as some sets. I did a few days on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” — not as compliance officer, but just working on the show — and I had to go test in Brooklyn three days in a row and get three negative tests before I was allowed to come on set. So I feel super confident in our guidelines and policies. They were written with a lot of hand-holding by the folks at Heinz Field who got through an entire NFL season without incident.

Q: How involved were the folks at Heinz Field
HAYHURST: First, I’d like to give props to CLO in general. From my first meeting with Mark, they have met this challenge with excitement and grace and have not cut any corners. Mark has always said the priority is keeping everyone safe and doing something for the community.
We had a bunch of meetings with Robert Jones [director of Team and Stadium Security], who was in the FBI for 30 years. Being head of security for the Steelers was supposed to be his fun retirement gig. And then, COVID. We met at 11 a.m. every Tuesday, and he wanted to know about our policies … and there weren’t too many things we were told we couldn’t do. One of the only rules was, don’t walk on the grass …
The conversation continued — something about monitoring performers’ boogers — but it was obvious by Hayhurst’s tone that now that THE WIZARD OF OZ was behind her, with no positive COVID cases, it was possible to be lighthearted about the challenges and long hours, and how eager she is to get back to work, this time on stage.
For now, she is basking in pride that everyone involved in her first theatrical production as a COVID compliance officer followed the safety regulations to a tee. And Toto, too.

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